Suspension of North Caledonian League 'the correct and sensible course of action'
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The managers of the North Caledonian League's two Caithness clubs have welcomed the decision to suspend the season now that the whole of mainland Scotland is in lockdown.
Halkirk United's Ewan McElroy and Thurso's Stevie Reid agreed that putting the campaign on hold for the duration of January was the only sensible course of action as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in the Highlands and the rest of the country.
The North Caledonian FA's management committee met on Wednesday night and agreed unanimously to pause the fixture calendar, as well as group training and friendlies. The decision is to be reviewed on February 3.
Halkirk United and Thurso play in Division One of the two-tier league and had been scheduled to meet in a local derby this Saturday following the midwinter break.
McElroy revealed that, regardless of the outcome of Wednesday's meeting, the Anglers would have been unwilling to continue playing football in the present circumstances.
"Personally I completely agree with the decision and think it's the correct and sensible course of action," he said.
"It's not just about football and the players directly involved – it's also family members, the communities and general public that this can affect.
"I had spoken with our chairman beforehand and we had both agreed that, regardless of the outcome, Halkirk United would not continue as things stand. It's a precarious position and I don't think playing football right now is the rational thing to do.
"Hopefully with the latest lockdown we will see numbers decreasing across the country and with the vaccine being rolled out things will improve as we go."
His Thurso counterpart Stevie Reid was pleased that there had been full agreement across the league.
"We all had a good chat about it, they asked everyone what their thoughts were, and it went very smoothly," he said. "Football is irrelevant right now, so the sensible thing for everyone concerned was just to suspend it.
“The way things are going here just now, there seems to be a lot more cases. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet and quite rightly it was suspended."
Reid pointed out that the Vikings are in any case effectively "homeless" for the time being with no access to either Sir George's Park or the Naver all-weather pitch, which are High Life Highland facilities.
He says the North Caledonian League could, if necessary, carry on until as late as June, although that would have implications for the summer football season – if it is able to go ahead at all.
“Everyone is hoping that things will slacken off again," Reid said.
"It's just a matter of reviewing it again on February 3 and taking it from there. It won't be snap decision.
“We've got a short season. They've introduced cups, but the two league divisions will be the main priority and if we can get that done at any point it'll be fine. They reckon we've even got up to June.
“On February 3 we can review it and see where everyone stands and what's happening all over.”
Reid will be asking his players to keep in shape in the coming weeks while group training is off the agenda.
"The players don't want to lose their fitness so I would like to think most of them would take it upon themselves to go out for a couple of runs a week and do little bits here and there," he said.
“We can only hope they do, as it'll make it easier for themselves in the long run when we get off and running again."
The North Caledonian League had been given exemption to keep playing during the new lockdown – but the management committee decided to freeze the season due to the escalating number of cases in the region.
"As an association, we took the decision before the season started to temporarily restructure our league format with the future in mind," a spokesman said.
"This reduced schedule has allowed us to make this decision knowing that we have time on our side and we look forward to completing the season following this short pause.
"Although our association has an exemption from the Scottish FA and the Scottish Government to continue playing, we believe that, in light of tighter restrictions and an increase in cases locally, pausing our schedule is the correct decision at this time, to help safeguard the vulnerable communities many of our teams belong to."
Robert MacCormack, manager of second division club Alness United, said: “I spoke to other managers in the league beforehand and it looked like it was going to be suspended until at least February.
“People are being told to stay at home and it wouldn’t look great if 22 people can go and play football on a Saturday when you are also told you can’t go and see your family members.
“If people are being told to stay at home and only leave the house for essential purposes then it is hard to justify playing football.
“As soon as Nicola Sturgeon made the announcement on Monday, I thought that it would be a done deal and the decision for the league season had already been made.”